Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ten years after 9/11: Have we Become the Enemy of Freedom?

Ten years after 9/11: Have we Become the Enemy of Freedom?

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We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men . . . to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.”Edward R. Murrow (March 9, 1954)

When the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground on September 11, 2001, it took with it any illusions Americans might have harbored about the nation’s invincibility, leaving many feeling vulnerable, scared and angry. Yet in that moment of weakness, while most of us were still reeling from the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of some 3,000 Americans, we managed to draw strength from and comfort each other.

Suddenly, the news was full of stories of strangers helping strangers and communities pulling together. Even the politicians put aside their partisan pride and bickering and held hands on the steps of the Capitol, singing “God Bless America.” The rest of the world was not immune to our suffering, acknowledging the fraternity of nations against all those who take innocent lives in a campaign of violence. United against a common enemy, inconceivable hope rising out of the ashes of despair, we seemed determined to work toward a better world.

Sadly, that hope was short-lived.

Long before the bodies buried under the rubble were recovered, the Bush administration was hard at work hatching plans that would push America down a path of destruction marked by ill-fated foreign policies, corporate primacy, a draconian security regime and an emerging surveillance state. With no clear plan except to oust the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda affiliates, Bush haphazardly invaded Afghanistan. The rush to invade Afghanistan, a country that most Americans knew nothing about, would signify the beginning of the longest war in American history.

It would not be long before the Bush administration turned its sights on Iraq (in fact, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill alleged that discussions about occupying Iraq began as early as January and February 2001). Congress marched in lockstep with Bush and his cronies and approved the Iraq War overwhelmingly. Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had no connection to the 9/11 attacks and Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction, the American war machine went into overdrive in an effort to incite American allies and the United Nations to wage war against Iraq.

Meanwhile, just a month after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the nefarious USA Patriot Act, which gutted the Bill of Rights. The Patriot Act gave the President unprecedented and unconstitutional powers to spy on, monitor and police American citizens. A clever title, public fear, and congressional ineptitude made the Patriot Act a shoo-in. And it was passed without debate and without our so-called representatives even having read the legislation. In this way, through so-called democratic measures, America began a terrible antidemocratic decade.

A new but dangerous era was dawning in America, bringing with it death and destruction for American soldiers and Iraqi and Afghani civilians. It would be an era of corporate domination at the expense of social services and working class citizens. It would be an era of pat-downs, SWAT team raids, unlawful imprisonment and torture. Yet blinded by hatred, choked with fear and grief, Americans closed their eyes to the emerging threat posed by their own government.

Desperate for certainty in a world that was anything but, most Americans fell in line with the president’s leadership, leaving those who questioned the president’s authority to be subdued and labeled unpatriotic. The media, having long since abdicated its role as a watchdog, quickly became the mouthpiece of the war machine.

Under cover of its “war on terrorism” and in blatant violation of constitutional and international law, the Bush Administration opened the door to a host of shadowy dealings involving extraordinary renditions, unlawful imprisonment and torture. Meanwhile, the U.S. established penal colonies in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq where prisoners not charged with any crime nor brought before any court could be kept in isolation, save for the attentions of certain depraved and sociopathic members of the intelligence agencies and armed forces who delighted in subjecting their detainees to all manner of torture. These atrocities further damaged America’s already tarnished reputation and deepened anti-American sentiment worldwide.

Ten years after 9/11, we have failed miserably in our attempts to bring about justice for our countrymen who died that day. Even Osama bin Laden’s demise offers little consolation when compared to the injustices we have been forced to endure by our own government. Moreover, by eschewing international law and the core values contained within the Bill of Rights, America has, in many regards, become the enemy of freedom.

Indeed, whatever success America has had in routing out terrorists over the past decade has been overshadowed by the new society in which we live. Suspicion, fear and ignorance are the new norms. We have made enemies of one another. We allow government agents to pat-down our children when we want to ride in an airplane. We stand by when transit authorities shut off cell phone service in order to disrupt protests. The news fails to report the thousands of SWAT team raids that take place every year, endangering and sometimes murdering people for victimless crimes. We turn the people we don’t agree with or understand—be they Muslim or Christian, Republican or Democrat—into fictitious boogeymen who want to destroy our livelihood.

Ten years after the world as we knew it came to a sudden end, we find ourselves charting hostile territory. While we were distracted by military carnage overseas and color-coded terror alert systems here at home, the economy has crumbled at the hands of corporate oligarchs, reckless bankers and a national debt escalating due to the costs of endless wars, pork-barrel spending and a lack of fiscal restraint. Corporations continue to rake in profits and benefit from taxpayer-funded bailouts, while middle- and working-class Americans struggle to make ends meet. Our government leaders, gridlocked by partisan politics and the endless quest to get re-elected, have altogether failed in their duty to represent us and our vital interests. Our military, tasked with policing America’s global military empire, has been stretched to the breaking point. The police presence in America has exploded, with unconstitutional and brutal police tactics increasingly condoned by the courts. The right to be considered innocent until proven guilty has been usurped by a new norm in which all citizens are suspects in a surveillance state. And the right to travel has been subjected to draconian security measures that fail to make us safer.

I highly doubt this is the America that the victims of 9/11 would have wanted to live in.

Fifty years ago, in his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the American people to beware of the military-industrial complex which threatened to bankrupt our economy and destroy society. We failed to heed his warning.

Just a few years earlier, the renowned television journalist Edward R. Murrow had warned Americans not to buy into the government’s campaign of fear-mongering by turning on each other. Although in the short term some seemed to listen, it was not long before, in our complacency and intolerance, we failed to heed the warning.

Ten years ago, we found ourselves being warned once again. In a stirring speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the resolution to wage war against Afghanistan, urged caution and diligence in deciding how to approach the issue of international terrorism. Quoting a clergy member who spoke at a 9/11 memorial service she said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

Let this anniversary be a wake-up call to a sleeping nation to rouse ourselves from a spirit of complacency and take our government leaders to task. The politicians will not act unless they are pushed. Thus, it will be up to us to confront the abuses of our government. Let us dismantle our military empire. Let us take care of our poor, our downtrodden. Let us push back against the surveillance state. Let us put human dignity above corporate profits. If not now, then when?

Medieval torture systems, including a stretching rack, uncovered in Afghan jails

Nato stops sending prisoners to Afghan jails over torture fears

General said to have ordered suspension of transfers ahead of UN report expected to tell of beatings and electric shocks

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Nato has suspended the transfer of detainees to some Afghan jails after fears they were being subjected to systematic torture, British defence officials have said.

The directive, issued this week, comes ahead of the imminent release of a UN report into detainees that is expected to be highly critical of the Afghan police, who process many of the detainees through the fledgling justice system.

The report is understood to outline how prisoners are routinely beaten, given electric shocks and subjected to other human rights violations, some within private jails run by police commanders.

The order from the head of the Nato-led mission, General John Allen, is understood to have directed with immediate effect that prisoners not be transferred to nine locations, including one in Kabul, where the abuse was reportedly the worst.

"With appropriate caution, ISAF [Nato's International Security Assistant Force] has taken the prudent measure to suspend detainee transfer to certain facilities," a Nato official said.

However, the defence officials said the warnings did not apply to Helmand province, where most British troops are based. The province's northern neighbour, Uruzgan, is thought to be where abuse is most common.

An Uruzgan tribal elder has provided the Guardian with mobile phone footage of a man being stripped naked in front of a few dozen other men who, amid laughter from the onlookers, is then briefly chased with a stick that they threaten to sodomise him with.

The elder, Mohammad Dawood Khan, said the perpetrators were all Uruzgan police and while none were wearing uniforms, a police truck is parked next to the group.

Separate research by human rights observers has uncovered medieval-like torture systems, including a stretching rack, and reports of a juvenile detention centre head who together with his son raped teenage inmates.

It appears money is often the motivation for the mistreatment of detainees. A former district governor in Uruzgan, Haji Salari, explained how it was usually perpetrated. "When the police arrest someone from the villages or the bazaar, as soon as they take them inside the jail they ask the prisoner for 2000 rupees or afghanis (£28)," he said. This was considered an "entry fee" for the prison, which equates to about 20% of a regular policeman's monthly salary.

"Inside the prison they put pressure on the prisoners by beating them. There's no power for electric shocks so they use wood on the soles of the feet and on the ass."

After the prisoner had been abused, Haji Salari said, they would be allowed to have family members visit. "When the visitors come, the prisoner will explain the situation to his family and plead with them to get them out. Then they have to find money to give to the police chief, or police officer [for their release]."

The head of the Uruzgan Ulema Council, Maulawi Hamidullah Akhund, said he had continually warned authorities of torture inside the province's jails. "Many, many times I have heard from prisoners that they have been beaten in the jail," he said.

He claimed he convinced the Ministry of Justice to send a delegation to Uruzgan eight months ago but after their visit, nothing changed.

The high court in London last year imposed strict conditions on the transfer by British forces of suspected insurgents to Afghan detention centres, after hearing evidence of "horrible abuse" in breach of international law.

However the court said then that the transfer of suspects to National Directorate of Security (NDS) prisons in Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand, should be allowed provided existing safeguards were "strengthened by observance of specified conditions". The court insisted that safeguards must include the right of British monitors to get regular access to the detainees.

A researcher for Human Rights Watch Afghanistan, Heather Barr, said she had not seen the UN report but its contents were not surprising: "But we are glad to see ISAF responding to it even through it's overdue. We hope it's not temporary until the bad press passes."

Our Creeping Police State: How Going to the Mall of America Can Land You in an FBI Counterterrorism Report

Our Creeping Police State: How Going to the Mall of America Can Land You in an FBI Counterterrorism Report

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On May 1, 2008, at 4:59 p.m., Brad Kleinerman entered the spooky world of homeland security.

As he shopped for a children’s watch inside the sprawling Mall of America, two security guards approached and began questioning him. Although he was not accused of wrongdoing, the guards filed a confidential report about Kleinerman that was forwarded to local police.

The reason: Guards thought he might pose a threat because they believed he had been looking at them in a suspicious way.

Najam Qureshi, owner of a kiosk that sold items from his native Pakistan, also had his own experience with authorities after his father left a cell phone on a table in the food court.

The consequence: An FBI agent showed up at the family’s home, asking if they knew anyone who might want to hurt the United States.

Mall of America officials say their security unit stops and questions on average up to 1,200 people each year. The interviews at the mall are part of a counterterrorism initiative that acts as the private eyes and ears of law enforcement authorities but has often ensnared innocent people, according to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR.

In many cases, the written reports were filed without the knowledge of those interviewed by security. Several people named in the reports learned from journalists that their birth dates, race, names of employers and other personal information were compiled along with surveillance images.

One Iranian man, now 62, began passing out during questioning. An Army veteran sobbed in his car after he was questioned for nearly two hours about video he had taken inside the mall.

Much of the questioning at the mall has been done in public while shoppers mill around, records show. Two people, a shopper and a mall employee, also described being taken to a basement area for questioning. Officials at the mall would not address individual cases.

“The government is not going to protect us free of charge, so we have to do that ourselves,” said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president of business development at the mall. “We’re lucky enough to be in the city of Bloomington where they actually have a police substation here [in the mall]. … They’re great. But we are responsible for this building.”

Reporters at the Center for Investigative Reporting and NPR obtained 125 suspicious activity reports totaling over 1,000 pages dating back to Christmas Eve, 2005. The documents, provided by law enforcement officials in Minnesota, give a glimpse inside the national campaign by authorities to collect and share intelligence about possible threats.

The initiative exemplifies one of the cultural legacies of the terrorist attacks 10 years ago: Organizations and individuals are now encouraged by U.S. leaders to watch one another and report any signs of threats to homeland security authorities.

There is no way for the public to know exactly how many suspicious activity reports from the Mall of America have ended up with local, state and federal authorities. CIR and NPR asked 29 law enforcement agencies under open government laws for reports on suspicious activities. Only the Bloomington Police Department and Minnesota’s state fusion center have turned over at least a portion of the paperwork.

In 2008, the mall’s security director, Douglas Reynolds, told Congress [PDF] that the mall was the “number-one source of actionable intelligence” provided to the state’s fusion center, an intelligence hub created after 9/11 to pull together reports from an array of law enforcement sources.

Information from the suspicious activity reports generated at the mall has been shared with Bloomington police, the FBI and, in at least four cases, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Missed signals prompt heightened awareness

The push to encourage Americans to report suspicious activity began in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when government officials and citizens found out there had been hints about the attackers that intelligence analysts had missed.

Some of the terrorists had taken flight training in Florida – but didn't focus on how to land. They bought one-way tickets. Officials at the FBI and other agencies failed to act on – or share – tips they had received.

In the decade since, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have launched programs urging citizens to report suspicious activity. The private sector, including the utility industry and other businesses concerned with protecting “critical infrastructure,” have their own surveillance and reporting systems. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made such reporting a priority.

Last year the Department of Homeland Security launched its promotional campaign, “If you see something, say something,” encouraging Americans to report anything perceived as threatening.

Among those formally enlisted were parking attendants, Jewish groups, stadium operators, landlords, security guards, fans of professional golf and auto racing and retailers such as the Mall of America.

Visitors “may be subject to a security interview,” the mall’s website says.

The suspicious activity reports from the mall are rich with detail. They contain personal information, sometimes including Social Security numbers and the names of family members and friends. Some of the reports include shoppers’ travel plans. (About 40 percent of mall visitors are tourists.)

Commander Jim Ryan of the Bloomington Police Department said shoppers are not under arrest when stopped for questioning by private security. He said even he would walk away if the questioning seemed excessive.

“I don’t think that I would subject myself to that, personally,” he said. Ryan, however, defends security procedures at the mall.

In some cases, the questioning appears to have the hallmarks of profiling – something that officials at the mall deny. In nearly two-thirds of the cases reviewed, subjects are described as African American, people of Asian and Arabic descent, and other minorities, according to an analysis of the documents.

Mall spokesman Dan Jasper said the private security guards would not conduct interviews based on racial or ethnic characteristics because “we may miss someone who truly does have harmful intent.”

“It’s important to note that we conduct security interviews based solely on suspicious behavior,” Jasper said in a statement. “Research indicates that profiling based on ethnic or racial characteristics is ineffective and a waste of valuable time and resources.”

Ryan said such reports are crucial to the nation’s safety in the post-9/11 era. He said the suspicious activity reports could be held by his agency for two decades or longer. He acknowledged that the mall’s methods, and reports the security guards file, may “infringe on some freedoms, unfortunately.”

“We’re charged with trying to keep people safe. We’re trying to do it the best way we can,” he said. “You may be questioned at the Mall of America about suspicious activity. It’s something that may happen. It’s part of today’s society.”

Some national security and constitutional law specialists question the propriety and effectiveness of such reports.

Dale Watson, a former top counterterrorism official with the FBI, said the mall's reports suggest that anyone could be targeted for intrusive questioning and surveillance.

“If that had been one of my brothers that was stopped in a mall, I’d be furious about it – if I thought the police department had a file on him, an information file about his activities in the mall without any reasonable suspicion to investigate,” said Watson, who played key roles in the investigations of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and a 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Shoppers, who for the most part had no idea that a visit to the mall led to their personal information being shared with law enforcement, reacted with anger and dismay when shown their reports.

“For all the 30 years that I have lived in the United States, I’ve never been a suspect,” said Emil Khalil. The California man was confronted at the mall in June 2009 for taking pictures, and he said an FBI agent later questioned him at the airport. “And I’ve never done anything wrong.”

Stories abound of people being stopped elsewhere in the United States for activity considered suspicious.

The New York Civil Liberties Union last year sued over one photographer’s arrest, leading to a formal acknowledgement by the government that there are no rules or laws explicitly barring photos of federal buildings. An ACLU chapter this spring threatened transit officials in Maryland with litigation after police ordered individuals to stop snapping and filming images.

Frequent clashes between photographers and security guards nonetheless continue. New Jersey commuters can “text against terror” if they see behavior believed to be strange, and a smart phone app allows residents of the Bluegrass State to be the “eyes and ears on Kentucky.”

Privately owned mall follows own rules

The Mall of America has become a monument to suburban shopping and entertainment. With 4.2 million square feet under one roof, the two-decade-old mall is one of the largest complexes of its kind in the world.

It features national retail stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Banana Republic, Brookstone and scores of other shops that populate malls across the country. It includes mom-and-pop kiosks selling T-shirts, cell phone covers, jewelry and more. To visit all the shops, more than 500 at last count, would take days.

But its entertainment complex sets the Mall of America apart. It has roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, a giant SpongeBob SquarePants statue, a water ride, remote-controlled trucks and boat games, all of it indoors. Nearly 100,000 people from around the world pass through the mall on a given day, more than 40 million each year.

The mall is controlled by the Canada-based Triple Five Group, a conglomerate that owns an even larger mall in Edmonton.

In 2005, the Mall of America hired Mike Rozin to lead a new special security unit.

Rozin served as a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces before working in a protective division at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. He trained mall security in the art of interpreting behavioral cues for signs of a threat. Although his unit’s approach has some of the hallmarks of profiling, Rozin dismissed any such notion, saying members of his unit merely watch what people do.

According to documents, they look for unexplained nervousness, people photographing such things as air-conditioning ducts or signs that a shopper might have something to hide. It’s the kind of approach for which Israeli airports are renowned.

“Today, when you fly through Ben Gurion airport, you don’t have to take your shoes off, you don’t have (liquid) restrictions of any sort, we don’t have body scanners,” Rozin said. “Yet we’re known to be the most secure airport in the world.”

Rozin said that earlier this year, his guards detected a suspicious man who tried to run when they approached. Bloomington police joined in pursuit. After he was stopped, according to Rozin’s account, they found a loaded handgun. He said the man had a history of violence. The mall’s spokesman declined to provide documents to corroborate Rozin’s account.

“Potentially that day, my … officer prevented a disaster, a case of indiscriminate shooting in the Mall of America,” Rozin said.

There are larger issues in the Twin Cities. At least 20 young Minnesotans have reportedly gone to Somalia to fight in the civil war. One man, who joined the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, attempted to blow himself up in May at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu.

Rozin acknowledged that the vast majority of people who come into contact with his unit “have done nothing wrong, have no malicious intent.”

“They just act in a suspicious manner that obligated me to investigate further,” Rozin said. “We talked to them for an average of five minutes, and they’re able to continue their shopping.”

Veteran’s encounter leaves him shaken

Francis Van Asten’s experience with mall security lasted much longer.

On Nov. 9, 2008, the Bloomington resident videotaped a short road trip from his home to the Mall of America. Van Asten, now 66, planned to send it to his fiancée’s family in Vietnam so they could see life in the United States.

As he headed down an escalator, camera in hand, mall guards caught sight of him.

“Right away, I noticed he had a video camera and was recording the rotunda area,” a security guard wrote in a suspicious activity report. “When he got to second floor [sic] he turned to the overlook of the park while still videotaping.”

Van Asten, a onetime missile system repairman for the Army, was questioned for approximately two hours, according to his suspicious activity report. He was asked about traveling to Vietnam and how he came to know people there. Van Asten was even asked through which mall door he entered.

The report later filed about him said he was “open and very willing to share information.”

Guards asked to see the contents of his camera. “The footage of all the vehicles and structures of the east ramp really worried me,” the security guard wrote.

Authorities were concerned about footage of an airplane landing at Minnesota’s international airport. They also worried Van Asten was conducting surveillance of mall property.

Van Asten said it was not clear to him at the time why he was stopped. After all, he was told nothing prohibited him from taking photographs or footage of the mall. But the mall’s guards still called Bloomington police, and they alerted the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. Van Asten was given a pat-down search, and the FBI demanded that his memory card be confiscated “for further analysis.”

Exhausted and rattled, Van Asten had trouble finding his car after the ordeal was over.

“I sat down in my car and I cried, and I was shaking like a leaf,” Van Asten said in an interview at his home. “That kind of sensation doesn’t leave you real quickly when you’ve had an experience like that.”

Man questioned for writing in notebook

Bobbie Allen, now 47, headed to the Mall of America on June 25, 2007, for lunch with a woman. As he waited for her, Allen sat alone writing in a notebook, which caught the attention of security. Counterterrorism experts sometimes instruct police and security personnel to look for suspicious note-taking, as it may indicate attack planning.

A security guard wrote in Allen’s suspicious activity report: “Before the male would write in his notebook, it appeared as though he would look at his watch. Periodically, the male would briefly look up from his notebook, look around, and then continue writing.”

Guards asked for his name and for whom he was waiting. Allen, a musician who lives in downtown Minneapolis, became frustrated, saying the questioning was intrusive. Allen, who is black, felt singled out for his race, according to the report. The guard responded that he was “randomly selected” for an interview and the questions continued. They asked what kind of coffee he liked best and where he planned to go for lunch.

The guards called Bloomington police after deciding Allen was uncooperative and his note-taking “suspicious.” Allen was eventually cleared, but a suspicious activity report was compiled complete with surveillance photo, age, height, address and more. Much of that information ended up in a Bloomington police report.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, said such actions trample on traditional civil liberties protections and shift unaccountable power into private hands.

Rosen said the risk of abuses is high, particularly if there turns out to be a lack of proven results.

“If all they’re getting for amassing suspicious activity reports on innocent people in government databases is the arrest of a few low-level turnstile jumpers and shoplifters, that doesn’t seem very sensible,” Rosen said.

In Allen’s case, he responded in a way few others have – he complained to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and filed a lawsuit. Department investigators concluded that there was probable cause to support Allen’s claim of racial discrimination.

Allen declined an interview, citing a settlement agreement reached with the mall. He would not provide details of that agreement.

The human rights department reviewed documents showing that in another case, a “suspicious” white patron was stopped while typing on a laptop computer. He, too, was “uncooperative,” but mall security “chose not to escalate the situation by calling the police,” according to a summary of the department’s investigation.

It reads: “The investigation found that the (mall’s) special security unit generates reports and field notes on suspicious persons, regardless whether the individual cooperated during the security interview or if police intervention occurred.”

Not everyone had a negative reaction to being written up. After a report naming him was forwarded to the FBI, Sameer Khalil of Orange County, Calif., said he believed that police and private security have an important job they must do.

“I think [the mall’s program] makes America safer,” he said.

Forgotten cell phone leads to FBI visit

The FBI arrived on the doorstep of businessman Najam Qureshi shortly after a run-in with mall security. His family moved from Pakistan to the United States when Qureshi was 8. Police once pulled over their car for a minor traffic violation, and Qureshi remembers his father saying, “You don’t have to fear the police here. They are here to help.”

Qureshi opened a small kiosk at the mall so his aging father, a former aeronautical engineer named Saleem, could keep busy. One day in early 2007, Saleem Qureshi left his cell phone in a mall food court. When he returned for it, security personnel had established a “perimeter” around the phone, along with other unattended items nearby that did not belong to Saleem – a stroller and two coolers.

The “suspicious” objects eventually were cleared by security, documents show. But mall guards pursued Saleem Qureshi with questions, continuing even after he returned to his kiosk.

“Qureshi moved around a lot when answering questions,” security guard Ashly Foster wrote in a suspicious activity report. “At one point, he moved to his kiosk and proceeded to take items off of two shelves just to switch them around. … He seemed to get agitated at points when I would ask more detailed questions.”

Four years after his father ended up in a suspicious activity report, his son was shown the report for the first time.

“The fact that this is in their database and they wasted time looking into these kinds of things is just silly,” said Najam Qureshi.

“Everybody that lives in this country,” he added, “is a person of interest as far as these reports are concerned."

Pentagon Profiteers Push Lobbying Assault to Grab More Taxpayer Dollars

Pentagon Profiteers Push Lobbying Assault to Grab More Taxpayer Dollars

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Fearful of possible defense spending cuts after a decade of unrestrained Pentagon budgets, an association representing the world’s largest defense contractors recently launched a public relations campaign to combat “forces in Congress and the [Obama] administration" that may curb purchases of weapons systems and other high-priced military gear. Dubbed “Second to None,” the industry effort whitewashes history in an attempt to deceive the public into taking action against a deficit-fighting decrease in military spending.

“Some extreme voices are calling for massive cuts to our national security and aerospace spending that would devastate our military, weaken our economy, and force us to cede global leadership in a time of increasing threats,” reads a breathless explanation on the group’s website. “Even as we balance budgets, the United States must do what it takes to remain Second to None.”

In a recent article on Second to None for the Huffington Post, however, Dan Froomkin explains that “the U.S. spends more on defense than the next 17 top-spending countries combined, according to figures compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.” He goes on to quote long-time Pentagon watcher Winslow Wheeler who told him, “The rhetoric and hysteria about these levels [of budget cuts], compared to what they are, is really quite stunning."

A product of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) – a coalition of more than 300 defense and aerospace firms -- Second to None predicts dire consequences for “our troops, our technological future and our economic stability,” if the Pentagon’s budget is substantively decreased and calls on the public to take action by sending letters to President Obama and members of Congress in protest. Engineered to appeal to the broadest base possible, the form letter offered by Second to None warns that cuts to Department of Defense funding will endanger troops in the field and also leave the United States with only two options when faced with “growing threats” – ignore them or send in ground troops. “Predator drones, cruise missiles, air superior aircraft and spy satellites are all the technologies that allow us to deal with modern threats without committing ourselves to another Iraq that nobody wants and America cannot afford,” reads Second to None’s template.

AIA hasn’t, however, always been as sour about the war in Iraq or its price tag. “The industry is doing terrific,'' John Douglass, then the president and chief executive officer of AIA gushed to a group of reporters and analysts in 2007. “[T]here's a lot of work related to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan…since they're wearing everything out over there.'' That statement sounded almost as tone-deaf as that of Marion Blakey, Douglass’s successor and AIA's current president and CEO who, in 2008, touted “years of U.S. battlefield successes in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Whatever tactical successes have been achieved by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan have paled in comparison to strategic failures that have resulted in wheel-spinning occupations that continue to this day. This is not to say the wars haven’t seen their fair share of success stories. In fact, it’s been companies behind the Aerospace Industries Association and its corporate chiefs who have seen the most success over the last 10 years of foreign conflict.

AIA's Executive Committee boasts not only Robert Stevens, the chairman and chief executive officer of the largest U.S. defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, but also top corporate executives from other Pentagon power-players who have profited handsomely as a result of the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan and 10 years of unfettered Pentagon budgets. These firms include Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Textron, United Technologies, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, General Electric, ITT, L-3 Communications and Raytheon, none of whose executives publicly spoke out against the Iraq war or cast it as an unwanted and unaffordable conflict. Instead, these companies and their CEOs cashed in on America’s wars.

In 2001, according to data compiled by the analytics firm Capital IQ and reported by the Associated Press, revenues for U.S.-based defense contractors totaled $217 billion. By 2010, the figure stood at $386 billion. Over the same period, annual defense industry profits almost quadrupled. This exceptional growth has been mirrored in executive pay at these firms.

According to a 2005 report by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, chiefs of Pentagon suppliers profited handsomely as a result of wars. Their analysis found that defense contractor “CEOs received raises on average of 200 percent between 2001 and 2004, compared to only 7 percent for average large company CEOs.”

When Ronald Sugar took over as CEO of defense giant Northrop Grumman in 2003, the year the Iraq war began, his pay was about $5.3 million per year. By 2009, his final year as CEO of the defense giant, his compensation had jumped about 240 percent to almost $18 million. (His successor, Wesley Bush, took home almost $23 million in salary, stock and other compensation from Northrop Grumman last year.) Lockheed’s Robert Stevens has done even better than average, according to data provided by Forbes. Since he took the helm at the company in 2005, his total compensation has increased 320 percent, to $21 million per year.

Using scare tactics, Second to None portrays defense cuts as dire and dangerous. Yet, these "cuts" may ultimately amount to nothing more than smaller increases in future spending than were once projected or, if “doomsday” measures are enacted to curb the federal deficit, a return to 2007 spending levels which were at the time, Wheeler told Froomkin, at a 16-year high. The industry effort suggests to Americans that even a measured decrease of the Pentagon budget might impact U.S. “air superiority,” making ground troops susceptible to “enemy air action” (no such American troops have been killed in an air attack since the Korean War) and impacting America’s “ability to defend the homeland.”

In 2001, however, the largest air force in the world wasn’t able to protect the United States from a terrorist air attack. The military also played no part in foiling later efforts of would-be airborne terrorists Richard Reid (“the shoe bomber”) or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (“the underwear bomber”), nor is conventional “air superiority” likely to play a role in thwarting future al Qaeda air attacks. And when it comes to rival states, even the next biggest military spender on the block, China – whose defense budget is, at most, one-sixteenth that of the United States' – doesn’t have anything approaching comparable technology, nor are such weapons systems even on the horizon.

The Second to None website, of course, mentions nothing of the financial gains of the companies behind the effort nor their CEOs' personal windfalls since 2001. Instead, dubious scare tactics and a disingenuous nod to the failure of the Iraq war are employed to mislead Americans into acting in the interests of the bosses of big defense firms. All of it leaves one to wonder if the men and women behind the Second to None campaign really believe their own public relations campaign or are truly more concerned that the title of a recent article from the Associated Press, “A Golden Decade for Defense Companies is Ending,” could really be true.

Under Obama Administration, Renditions and Secrecy Continue

Under Obama Administration, Renditions and Secrecy Continue

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New documents in recent days have surfaced several new details about the shadowy practice of snatching terrorism suspects from one country and rendering them into the custody of another. As we noted last week, several documents on rendition emerged as part of an obscure court case in the state of New York. Others were discovered by Human Rights Watch in Libya.

Of course, it's been known for years that the Bush administration practiced (and on several occasions, botched) rendition.

What's less appreciated: While the Obama administration has tried to distance itself from the some of the harshest counterterrorism techniques, it has also said that at least some forms of renditions will continue.

In confirmation hearings in 2009, CIA director nominee Leon Panetta said that the Obama administration would not conduct what’s known as “extraordinary rendition,” which he defined as “when we send someone for the purpose of torture or actions by another country that violate our human values.” Rendition that delivers suspects to another country to be prosecuted in that country’s judicial system is still an “appropriate use of rendition,” he said.

Months later, the newly installed Panetta again tried to distance the administration from the Bush-era actions. “The worst part of rendition was rendition to a black site,” he told the New Yorker. “That will not be the case anymore. If we render someone, it will be to a country with jurisdiction over that individual.” The Obama administration had ordered the closure of the CIA black sites.

It's hard to tell what such statements have meant in practice because the Obama administration has also followed another aspect of the Bush adminstration's rendition policy: utter secrecy. The Obama White House has invoked the states secrets privilege to block evidence that could reveal details about past renditions under Bush and, more recently, has declined to comment on the latest documents discovered in Libya and the details that emerged in the litigation in New York.

Though an Obama administration task force recommended that greater accountability measures be imposed on countries that suspects are rendered to, the extent to which the recommendations have been implemented is unclear, and public statements by officials have been vague.

The administration has said it will continue seeking what are known as diplomatic assurances, or assurances from the receiving country promising that suspects won't be tortured in their custody.

“I will seek the same kind of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely,” Panetta stated in his confirmation hearings. “I intend to use the State Department to be sure those assurances are implemented and stood by.”

The Bush administration relied on such assurances for years, and human rights groups have long decried the use of diplomatic assurances as unreliable, citing instances in which those assurances were violated.

In 2005, the Washington Post cited several current and former intelligence officers asserting that the diplomatic assurances relied on by the CIA were essentially highly questionable verbal pledges. “They say they are not abusing them, and that satisfies the legal requirement, but we all know they do,” one anonymous official told the Post. Then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez also acknowledged that “we can’t fully control what a country might do.”

That semblance of an accountability system was in place even when the CIA rendered Abdul Hakim Belhaj, now the top rebel commander in Libya, back in 2005. Belhaj has said that after being rendered by the U.S., he was tortured by CIA agents and then delivered by Qaddafi’s government in Libya, which also abused him. One CIA memo dated 2005, found by Human Rights Watch, corroborates the basic facts of his rendition and shows the U.S. spy agency requesting an assurance from Libya that he would be treated humanely. (See the memo, which we’ve posted.)

According to Joanne Mariner, director of the human rights program at Hunter College, the Libya case is "a really compelling example of how diplomatic assurances do not work." She says that while there aren't known cases of the Obama administration using rendition in a problematic way, it's not clear whether diplomatic assurances have been any more meaningful under this administraton than the last.

"What the Obama administration has said is not terribly reassuring," Mariner said, pointing to a general lack of transparency. "What we do know is that this administration as publicly stood behind the concept of diplomatic assurances and has expressed confidence in diplomatic assurances."

At least one Obama administration official has maintained that rendition is legal under U.S. law, even if the receiving country might torture the suspect. As the Washington Post's SpyTalk blog noted, CIA assistant general counsel Daniel Pines, writing for a law journal last year, asserted that while U.S. officials could not themselves torture suspects during rendition, “U.S. law does not even preclude the United States from rendering an individual to a foreign location where he or she could be abused or tortured.” Pines said he was expressing his own views, and not the official views of the CIA or U.S. government.

But on the international stage, the United States and its allies have been accused of breaching international law in their practice of extraordinary rendition under the Bush administration. A 2009 report by the United Nations special rapporteur stated that the U.S. system of extraordinary renditions and secret detention "violate the prohibition against torture and other forms of ill-treatment."

35K ‘Terrorists’ Convicted Worldwide After 9/11

35K ‘Terrorists’ Convicted Worldwide After 9/11

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At least 35,000 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. But while some bombed hotels or blew up buses, others were put behind bars for waving a political sign or blogging about a protest.

In the first tally ever done of global anti-terror arrests and convictions, The Associated Press documented a surge in prosecutions under new or toughened anti-terror laws, often passed at the urging and with the funding of the West. Before 9/11, just a few hundred people were convicted of terrorism each year.

The sheer volume of convictions, along with almost 120,000 arrests, shows how a keen global awareness of terrorism has seeped into societies, and how the war against it is shifting to the courts. But it also suggests that dozens of countries are using the fight against terrorism to curb dissent and throw political opponents in jail.

Editor’s Note: After the 9/11 attacks, the world launched a war on terror. Here, in the first tally of anti-terror prosecutions ever done, The Associated Press examines how many people have been put behind bars under anti-terror laws, and who they are. AP reporters in more than 100 countries filed requests under freedom of information laws, conducted interviews and gathered data for this story.

The AP used freedom of information queries in dozens of countries, law enforcement data and hundreds of interviews to identify 119,044 arrests of terrorism suspects and 35,117 convictions in 66 countries, accounting for 70 percent of the world's population. The actual numbers undoubtedly run higher because some countries refused to provide information.

That included 2,934 arrests and 2,568 convictions in the United States, which led the war on terror — eight times more than in the decade before.

The investigation also showed:

  • More than half the convictions came from two countries that have been accused of using anti-terror laws to crack down on dissent, Turkey and China. Turkey alone accounted for a third of all convictions, with 12,897.
  • The range of people in jail reflects the dozens of ways different countries define a terrorist. China has arrested more than 7,000 people under a definition that counts terrorism as one of Three Evils, along with separatism and extremism.
  • The effectiveness of anti-terror prosecutions varies widely. Pakistan registered the steepest increase in terror arrests in recent years, AP's data shows, yet terror attacks there are still on the rise. But in Spain, where convictions per year are more or less steady, the armed Basque separatist group ETA has not planted a fatal bomb in two years.
  • The broad use of anti-terror laws to get rid of dissent can backfire. Authoritarian governments in the Middle East relied on strict anti-terror laws as one way to keep order, only to face a backlash in the Arab Spring uprisings.

AP's findings start to fill in the largely blank picture of what has happened with the global war on terror, launched by the United Nations with the strong backing of the United States.

"There's been a recognition all around the world that terrorism really does pose a greater threat to society and that it needs to be nipped in the bud early," said John Bellinger, who as legal adviser to the National Security Council was in the White House Situation Room during the al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center. "Also, more authoritarian countries are using the real threat of terrorism as an excuse and a cover to crack down in ways that are abusive of human rights."

___

After 9/11 the U.S. and the U.N. declared war not just on al-Qaida, but on terrorism worldwide. The U.N. immediately sent millions of dollars in foreign aid and lucrative contracts to press countries to adopt or revise their anti-terror laws. The term "global war on terror" was born.

Since then, almost every country has passed new or revised anti-terror laws, from tiny nations like Tonga and Luxembourg to giants like China.

Over the last nine months, AP reporters in more than 100 countries set out to find how — and how much — anti-terror laws were used. But some countries claimed they had no records, declared anti-terror information top secret or were reluctant to report any terrorism at all, lest it hurt their image.

The numbers show how much countries have come to rely on anti-terror laws, and how thin the line is between use and abuse.

Turkey, long at odds with its Kurdish minority, tops all other countries AP could tally for how many anti-terror convictions it has and how fast the number is rising.

One of Turkey's terrorists is Naciye Tokova, a Kurdish mother of two who lives in a small village in arid southeastern Turkey. Last year she held up a sign at a protest that said, "Either a free leadership and free identity, or resistance and revenge until the end."

She couldn't read the sign, because she cannot read. Tokova said she was asked to hold a banner she thought was about peace.

She was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

"Of course, I'm not a terrorist," Tokova, who is free on appeal, said as she sat on a floor cushion in her home, wearing a traditional flowered shawl. She was defiant, replying curtly to questions after long pauses.

In the past, Tokova has inked her thumb print on a petition honoring the Kurdish rebel chief and gone to a rally where protesters clashed with police. And she speaks only Kurdish, a language Turkey has barred in schools, parliament and most official settings, including court.

Kurds make up 20 percent of Turkey's 75 million people, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party is responsible for much of the violence in the country. The U.S. and European Union label the Kurdish party as terrorist, but urges Turkey to do more for the Kurdish people.

While Turkey has for decades imprisoned Kurds, it stepped up its campaign against Kurdish autonomy in 2006, when it followed the lead of its European neighbors and revised anti-terror laws. The new laws considered peaceful protests as security threats, and gave protesters sentences similar in length to those of convicted guerrillas.

Anti-terror convictions shot up from 273 in 2005 to 6,345 in 2009, the latest year available, according to information from an AP request under Turkey's right to information law.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says the country is fair to its Kurds.

"We have never compromised on the balance between security and freedom," Erdogan said.

___

The broad use of anti-terror laws worldwide shows that what constitutes a terrorist depends largely on where you are.

The day after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told the U.N. General Assembly that the world stood "at a difficult and defining moment."

The trouble is, no one actually agrees on what makes a terrorist. Definitions range from those who set an almost impossibly high bar for terrorism to those who sweep up anyone who might oppose the government.

"If anything should have revealed to the world the essence of unacceptable terrorism, it was 9/11. Unfortunately, a decade later, we seem no closer to reaching agreement," said law professor Kent Roach at the University of Toronto, whose book on 9/11 and its impact on anti-terrorism will be published in September.

Even the U.S., which fought to get anti-terror laws passed, has come under criticism for allegedly not handling terrorist suspects fairly, especially at the military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and for not defining terrorism clearly. In fact, the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department don't agree on what terrorism is.

China has an anti-terrorism statute, but it prefers to consider terrorism part of a vague charge of "endangering state security," under which it has arrested more than 7,000 people, mostly in Xinjiang, according to the government's annual crime reports. Xinjiang is known as East Turkistan to ethnic Uighurs fighting for an independent homeland.

Strong anti-terror laws are necessary to crack down on violence and ensure safety, State Councilor Meng Jianzhu said during a national anti-terror conference this summer. Meng pledged to handle terrorists with an "iron fist."

That doesn't mean just violent offenders.

Two years ago, Dilshat Perhat, an Uighur entrepreneur in China, asked visitors to his popular Uighur-language website not to post political comments because he knew they were illegal. Even so, someone posted a call for a demonstration on the website in the middle of the night.

Perhat deleted the comments the next day and informed the police, as required. But he was arrested anyway, amid an outbreak of violence that killed 197 people in China's Muslim-majority northwest. Perhat was convicted in a one-day trial last year, and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of endangering state security.

China quickly accused Uighur activists abroad of organizing the violence as an act of terrorism. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs were rounded up in house-to-house sweeps and arrested. At least two dozen were executed, and an unknown number remain unaccounted for.

Even those with no hand in the violence, like Perhat, were sentenced to prison for up to 15 years. Two other website operators were sentenced to three and 10 years respectively.

Perhat is now in Xinjiang's No. 4 prison.

"They wanted to use him as an example, to threaten and show their power to the Uighur people," said Perhat's brother Dilmurat, a graduate student in the U.S. "Inside China, any peaceful protest by the Uighurs is labeled as an act of terrorism by the Chinese government."

___

The increase in anti-terror prosecutions reflects how much they have become a weapon, however blunt, in the fight against terrorism. But when it comes to actually stopping violence, the record is mixed.

The rise in terror arrests in Pakistan was steeper than in any other country the AP examined, with the help of billions of dollars from the United States. Arrests have gone up from 1,552 in 2006 to 12,886 in 2009, partly because of four military operations that year.

Since amending its terror laws in 2004, Pakistan has made 29,050 arrests in all, according to the independent Pak Institute for Peace Studies.

Yet terror attacks in Pakistan are still on the rise. Pakistan suffers more deaths from terror than any other country in the world, except for Iraq.

Only about 10 percent of terrorism cases in Pakistan end in conviction, according to the country's human rights commission. That compares with 90 percent in the U.S. Pakistani witnesses usually refuse to testify because of death threats and the lack of protection. And prosecutors have no power to make plea bargains, making it hard to get co-defendants to turn on each other.

Pakistan's anti-terror laws may even make things worse, at least in the short term.

When arrests go up, so do attacks, according to Syed Ejaz Hussain, a Pakistani police officer who studied thousands of cases for his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. And when police arrest hard-core terrorists, Hussain found, casualty rates go up almost 25 percent.

"It's defiance. Terrorists want to punish the government in a bigger way after the arrest of their hard-core group member, and one way to do so is to commit a mass-killing event," says Hussain, whose house in Lahore was bombed while he was in the U.S. Back in Pakistan now, he says that despite his standard-issue gun and bullet-proof jacket, terror is never far from his mind.

Like Pakistan, Spain is no stranger to terrorism, but has had some success fighting it. Spain stands out for how steadily it has convicted people over the past decade, with about 140 convictions a year, according to data from AP's freedom of information request.

ETA, the Basque separatist group, once was responsible for killings every month. Today it is severely weakened.

No one is shouting victory yet — this is ETA's 11th ceasefire — but the group annnounced earlier this year that it has ended a "revolutionary tax" levied for decades on Basque businesses to finance its terror campaign.

"The terrorist attacks 10 years ago on the World Trade Center and the Madrid bombings helped forge a strong feeling of rejection toward ETA," said Spanish journalist Gorka Landaburu, who is Basque and himself a victim of an ETA mail bomb in May 200 that blew off his thumb and fingertips. "Society lost a bit of its fear."

After 9/11, Spain passed a tough new law under which it can ban political parties that support terrorist acts, collaborate with terrorist groups or refuse to condemn violence. By 2003, Spain had outlawed Basque political party Batasuna, which had ties to ETA. Convicted terrorists in Spain face a maximum of 40 years, 10 more than for other crimes, including murder.

Political science professor Roman Cotarelo of Spain's National Open University notes that Spain's Political Party Law was introduced "in a period made fertile" by the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Every democratic country has to resort at one time or another to exceptional measures to defend itself," Cotarelo said.

A new Basque pro-independence political coalition won a local election after it made clear it rejected violence — something unimaginable a decade ago. It now controls dozens of Basque town halls. And polls say ETA is no longer Spaniards' chief worry.

For Landaburu, a gray-haired, chatty journalist who runs the magazine Cambio 16, the terror is still there, in his pinched brow and in the two bodyguards who follow him to work, to a bar for a beer or even just walking with his family. When he gestures with his hands, which he often does, there's a stump where his thumb once was.

But he feels ETA's days are numbered.

"Things are much calmer," he said. "People can breathe more easily."

___

Anti-terror laws are still playing out in unexpected ways, particularly in the Middle East, long seen as the cauldron of terrorism.

After the terrorist attacks on the U.S., many Middle Eastern countries quickly adopted strict anti-terror laws. But the laws inadvertently united activists of all stripes — trade unionists, Islamists, Internet bloggers — in the Arab Spring.

Tunisia passed its anti-terror laws in 2003. The staunchly secular regime used the laws to crack down on signs of piety, to protect itself and to prevent the rise of Islamic militancy. It convicted 62 people under the laws in 2006, 308 in 2007 and 633 in 2009, according to the U.N.

One of those convicted was Saber Ragoubi, a slim, soft-spoken young man with a full beard and an engaging smile. The smile is a recent addition — he was just fitted with two new front teeth to replace the ones kicked out of his mouth by the heavy boot of a prison guard, he says.

Ragoubi joined an anti-government group in 2006, because he says he wanted religious freedom. The group was trained by an Algerian group that later declared allegiance to al-Qaida.

Ragoubi says he never held or planned to hold a weapon, but he did support plans to attack police stations and the much-hated secret police.

When the police found him, Ragoubi was tried and sentenced to life in prison. For years, he says, he was kicked and beaten, his hands and legs chained to an iron bar in what was called the "chicken on a spit" position. He says he was shackled him to a metal chair and electrically shocked, and told his mother and sisters would be raped in front of him if he didn't sign a confession.

"To this day, I don't know how I bore all that torture during that time," said Ragoubi, who now lives in an unfinished neighborhoood where goats graze under straggly olive trees in trash-filled empty lots.

Under former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as many as 2,000 Tunisians were detained, charged or convicted on terrorism-related charges, according to a 2009 State Department report. The U.N. says some were tortured.

But five days after Ben Ali fled in January, the new ministers released everyone convicted under the anti-terror laws — even those who had indeed committed violent crimes. The danger is now that militant Islam could rise without the check of strong anti-terror laws. At least one formerly banned Islamist party, the progressive and nonviolent Ennahda, is back, and Ragoubi says he has turned down an offer to represent it.

The role of anti-terror laws in — and against — the Arab Spring continues.

Bahrain and Syria have charged protesters under their own anti-terror laws. Saudi Arabia, concerned with keeping al-Qaida from taking root in the kingdom, is considering an anti-terror law that would carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for challenging the integrity of the king.

"Regional unrest provides a breeding ground for new threats," a statement from Saudi authoritites read.

___

Ten years after 9/11, the push for a global assault on terrorism still runs strong. Mike Smith, director of the U.N.'s Counter-Terrorism Committee, calls prosecuting terrorists "incredibly important."

"These are not ideological warriors, these are common criminals," said Smith, one of the highest-ranking officials in the world dedicated to anti-terror laws. "When prosecutions are carried out, it helps to take the glamour out of what they are doing."

But almost everyone, including the U.N. and the U.S., agrees that the cost is some erosion of human rights.

In 2005, the U.N. named Finnish law professor Martin Sheinin as special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism. His job is to report on how anti-terror prosecutions are playing out. After six years, Sheinin agrees with the need to sweep out terrorists but concludes that the brush being used is too broad.

"Originally the approach was the more the merrier, the stronger counter-terror laws, the better for the security of the world. But that was a serious mistake," he said. "Nowadays people are realizing the abuse and even the actual use of counterterror laws is bad for human rights and also bad for actually stopping terrorism."

As wildfires rage across Texas, feds take control and scuttle volunteer firefighters

As wildfires rage across Texas, feds take control and scuttle volunteer firefighters

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(NaturalNews) As fires raged across central Texas for the past three days, local citizens sprang into action to protect their lives and property. Local churches opened their doors and began hosting refugees left homeless by the fires which have now destroyed more than 1,000 homes and 100,000 acres across the state in just the past week. Several branches of the YMCA also began hosting families with children, and a public school in Bastrop County opened its doors to serve as an emergency relief center.

See a YouTube video of a citizen's narrow escape around Highway 21 near Bastrop, Texas:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYkc...

Federal agencies seize control on Tuesday

Hundreds of firefighters from all the surrounding counties worked two days and nights in a heroic effort to contain the fires, but high winds Sunday night and all day Monday thwarted their efforts. So the call went out for more volunteer firefighters to join the effort from across the state.

Before they arrived, however, the federal government showed up and claimed it was in charge of the situation. "Agents with the federal National Interagency Fire Center, a coalition of federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, assumed command of firefighting efforts Tuesday afternoon," reports The Gonzales Cannon (http://www.gonzalescannon.com/node/6411).

RealNewsReporter.com is now reporting that volunteer firefighters who had in some cases driven all night to reach Bastrop county were turned away by the feds, who claimed that since local officials never made a "formal request" for volunteers, the volunteers could not be "activated."

So while Bastrop County burns from 40+ fires that are still raging, the federal government is actually telling volunteer firefighters to go home.

"We were at the station getting set up into strike teams, and this guy came up and said that the U.S. Forest Service had 'assumed control of the situation, and that If you don�t have a vehicle that squirts water, go home,' said Gordon Greer of Kirbyville, in a RealNewsReporter article (http://www.realnewsreporter.com/?p=7889). Gordon reportedly drove all night Monday to arrive in Bastrop and take part in the firefighting effort. "You've got guys who had driven all night long from Corpus Christi and Brownsville on their own dime, and they turned them away," he said.

That same story reports that Jennifer Jones of the U.S. National Interagency Incident Center confirmed multiple federal agencies would be taking over the scene. Tuesday afternoon, the Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management stated on its Facebook page that volunteer firefighters would have to be "activated by the National Forestry Service first."

In other words, if you're a local Texan and you want to help other Texans save their ranches, or their homes, or their businesses, you need permission from the federal bureaucracy first!

But some Texans aren't allowing their efforts to be thwarted. As Real News Reporter says in its story, a group of Texas Nationalist Movement members who are also certified firefighters are in the Bastrop area and aiding civilian relief efforts, with or without permission from Washington D.C.

FEMA is approving grant money to help pay for some firefighting efforts

On the good news side, FEMA has reportedly approved several government grants to pay for firefighting efforts, although it should be mentioned that if the federal government wasn't taking so much of everybody's money to begin with, local groups of people could more easily afford to pay for their own firefighting defense and wouldn't need grants to cover the costs in the first place.

FEMA has promised to cover up to 75 percent of approved firefighting costs, reports KXAN.com (http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/local/...), although this will no doubt require weeks or even months of detailed accounting and cost justification efforts.

Even Gov. Rick Perry eluded to the frustration of getting federal grants approved for relief efforts, saying, "It's more difficult than it should be to get those assets freed up from the federal government." (http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/local/...)

Perry did confirm that Texas "would seek federal disaster relief and that state officials were considering seeking military resources from Fort Hood," reports The Gonzales Cannon (http://www.gonzalescannon.com/node/6411).

(Military resources? What kind of military resources? I found it odd yesterday to personally witness what looked like U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters taking off and landing near the Tahitian Village fires in Bastrop. Does the U.S. military have constitutional authority to take part in firefighting operations on U.S. soil? Clearly, some military transport planes could be very useful right now, but we always have to be careful how much control we hand over to the military in these domestic situations... never forget posse comitatus!)

Also, this just confirmed: Gov. Perry has activated Texas Task Force 1, billed as an "elite search and rescue team," to head to Bastrop County and make sure everyone is accounted for: http://www.thestatecolumn.com/texas...

Other details on the fire

• Two fatalities have been reported so far: A young mother and her 18-month-old daughter were killed in Gladewater due to the wildfires there.

• Total property damage from the fire is now estimated at $100 million according to the Insurance Council of Texas. (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2011/0...)

• Insurance companies have set up "claims camps" with large buses and tents to help the locals get their property claims handled. I personally saw several insurance industry buses on the North side of Highway 71 when we drove through.

• 85 fires are still burning across Texas. There is a rumor that at least one Texas fire was started by arson (the fire in Leander), but this has not been confirmed.

• Local churches have stepped up to provide aid, including the Ascension Catholic Church, Grace Lutheran Church and First Baptist Church.

• The winds died down significantly all day Tuesday, greatly slowing the spread of the fires. Low winds are also expected to hold out Wednesday. The severe drought conditions in Texas have made the state a fire tinderbox, and any wind over 5-10 mph could easily cause these fires to spread out of control once again (actually, they're still not even 10% contained, so they're not "in control" at all...)

• Rumor report: A DC-10 aircraft that has been retrofitted for firefighting has arrived in Bastrop County, according to reports on a Central Texas news radio station, but the plane will not be operational until Friday because of mandatory government "down time" restrictions on the flight crew. (Gee, is there nobody else who can fly a DC-10 in Texas? There were thousands of these planes in commercial operation over the past three decades... surely somebody can fly this hunk of steel, despite the fact that the hydraulics have no redundancy!)

NaturalNews wants to talk to some volunteer firefighters...

NaturalNews wishes to thank www.RealNewsReporter.com for covering this story, and I personally would like to know if anyone can put us in touch with Daniel Miller or other members of the Texas Nationalist Movement who would like to be interviewed about all this to tell the rest of the story. Our offices may be contacted at the following email: reply@naturalnews.com or visit www.Facebook.com/naturalnews and send a private message. We are especially interested in stories of local Texans who are trying to help the situation being sent home or interfered with by federal agencies such as FEMA. We all saw what FEMA did to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and we sure don't need that same "government solution" in Central Texas.

As Rep. Ron Paul has rightly pointed out during numerous interviews, "FEMA to the rescue" isn't always a good thing.

Texas volunteer firefighters buy their own gear!

Many of the volunteers currently fighting the wildfires in Texas buy their own gear! Please consider supporting them through the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund:

http://txwildfirerelief.org/

"Over 77 percent of fire departments in Texas are volunteer departments who struggle daily on getting the equipment they need to respond to emergencies across the state," said Chief Chris Barron, Director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas (SFFMA). "Eighty-six percent of the state's volunteer firefighters use personal funds for their departments' safety equipment and supply needs." (http://www.globenewswire.com/newsro...)

Sources for this story include:
http://news.yahoo.com/officials-1-0...
http://www.suite101.com/news/texas-...

Economic downturn intensifies global currency conflict

Economic downturn intensifies global currency conflict

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Amid a torrent of disastrous news for the world economy, the Swiss National Bank on Tuesday took the drastic step of setting a ceiling for the Swiss franc, a move that harkens back to the competitive devaluations and currency wars of the 1930s.

The Swiss National Bank announced that it would adopt a minimum exchange rate of SFr1.20 to the euro, and that it is prepared to purchase foreign currency in “unlimited quantities” in order to defend the franc.

The move triggered a massive sell-off of the currency, which almost immediately lost nearly ten percent of its value against the euro.

The Swiss franc has risen 25 percent against the euro in the past two years, as the currency became a safe haven for investors amidst an intensifying debt crisis in the eurozone.

In its press release announcing the measure, the Swiss National Bank said that the “overvaluation of the Swiss franc poses an acute threat to the Swiss economy,” and that the central bank is “aiming for a substantial and sustained weakening of the Swiss franc.”

The bank will enforce the new minimum rate with “the utmost determination,” the statement added.

The Swiss economy is highly export-driven, and a continued increase in the value of the franc would significantly increase the price of exports, hitting Swiss manufacturers’ sales to its main trading partners in the European Union. Swedish economic forecaster BAK Base on Tuesday cut its estimated growth rate for Switzerland next year to 0.8 per cent, compared to the rate of 1.9 percent estimated for this year.

The Swiss franc increased sharply during the past week in response to the exacerbation of the European debt crisis and fears of an even sharper downturn of the world economy. Since August 30, the Swiss franc has risen eight percent against the euro, offsetting all previous efforts by the country's central bank to control its appreciation.

Meanwhile dire economic news that led investors to seek the safety of the franc has continued to pour in. This includes a report in the US showing zero jobs growth last month and multiple indices indicating a new economic slump three years after the crash of 2008.

The world economy grew at its slowest pace in two years, according to the JPMorgan Global Manufacturing & Services Purchasing Managers’ Index figures released Tuesday morning. The index fell from 52.5 in July to 51.5 in August, only marginally points above the figure of 50 taken to divide growth from contraction. These figures have fallen drastically since the start of the year.

Output hit a two-year low in the eurozone and a 27-month low for India. “Although manufacturing was the main drag, the service sector fared only moderately better,” said David Hensley, Director of Global Economics Coordination at JPMorgan.

The Markit combined Purchasing Mangers’ Index reading for the eurozone, meanwhile, fell from 51.1 in July to 50.7 in August, the lowest level since 2009. Even more disastrously, the manufacturing figure for the eurozone fell to 49.0 in August, the first contraction in two years.

The government debt crisis, meanwhile, has called into question the solvency of several European banks. “It is obvious, not to say a truism that many European banks would not cope with writing down government bonds held in the banking book to market value,” Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, noted on Monday.

The continuing economic slowdown has deepened divisions within Europe, while redoubling the dedication of the dominant sections of the European ruling class, particularly in Germany, to austerity.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minster, reaffirmed his support for even further austerity measures in Greece, Portugal, Spain a and Italy, amid renewed evidence of the disastrous impact of these measures on the world economy. In a column published in the Financial Times Tuesday, “Why austerity is only cure for the eurozone,” Schäuble argued against any let-up in slashing public spending. He rejected out of hand any increase in spending in the stronger eurozone economies to compensate for spending cuts to the weaker ones.

Yet these austerity measures are only intensifying the global economic downturn, which is in turn putting renewed stress on countries to pursue unilateral exchange rate policies.

The Swiss National Bank’s announcement of a currency ceiling for the franc is only the latest sign of growing international tensions over exchange rate policy. It follows the announcement earlier this year by Japan that it would seek to lower the valuation of the yen, coupled with the cheap-dollar policy pursued by the United States over the course of years.

While the United States has not openly claimed a weak dollar as a policy goal, its near-zero interest rates and two rounds of “quantitative easing” asset purchases by the Federal Reserve have had the effect of weakening the dollar 15 percent against the euro since June 2010.

Brazil’s finance minister Guido Mantega said Friday that this cheap dollar policy was partly to blame for the fact Brazil’s growth rate slowed from 1.2 percent in the first quarter to 0.8 percent in the second.

“Part of Brazil’s growth is leaking overseas,” he said, blaming the devaluation of the dollar for putting Brazilian exporters at a disadvantage. Mantega said that a third round of quantitative easing, currently being debated in Washington, would mean a “devaluation of the dollar and too much internal liquidity, which will probably lead to appreciation of the real and a continuation of the currency war.”

He added, “Unfortunately, monetary policy seems to be the only weapon the US chooses to use to solve its problems and this leads to problems for the world economy.”

US policy since the crisis of 2008 has been dictated by the determination to bail out the financial system through the endless provision of cheap credit. This has inflated the markets, aided US exports, and placed immense pressures on the global currency system.

The world currency crisis is rooted fundamentally in the long-term decline of American capitalism and the US dollar, the foundation of the post-war currency regime. This is now leading to a general breakdown of the international exchange rate system and a turn to protectionism, as any defensive currency move by one country puts pressure on others to follow suit.

As the events of this summer make clear, the measures taken by the ruling class in response to the crisis of 2008 have resolved nothing. The ruling class has no way out of the disaster it has created.

Switzerland’s explicit announcement that it seeks to protect its currency by acquiring “unlimited” amounts of foreign cash will inevitably put pressure on other countries to respond with even more radical and unilateral measures.

The continuing downturn of the world economy, mixed with a global financial and fiscal crisis, sets the stage for the return to the beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism of the 1930s, which dramatically intensified the Great Depression and set the stage for world war.